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Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

June 17 - August 13, 2000


This summer, the San Antonio Museum of Art becomes home to the American West that once was. From June 17 through August 13, the Museum presents "Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum," an exhibition that captures the West as it was seen and experienced by American artists from the 1820s through the 1940s.

"Lure of the West" features 64 major paintings and sculptures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum's impressive collection. Organized by the Smithsonian, the exhibition will travel to just eight museums around the country. The San Antonio Museum of Art is its very first destination. (left: Eanger Irving Couse, Elk-Foot of the Taos Tribe,1909, oil, 78 1/4 x 36 3/8 inches, Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

"Lure of the West" invites its audience to explore the American West with the artists who shared in the excitement of its exploration and development. Many of the artists who ventured west in the 1800s and early 1900s found a new and exciting subject in the native people they discovered, and the paintings and sculptures of these artists are well represented in "Lure of the West." As a result, the exhibition offers a unique opportunity to observe how artists' feelings toward Native Americans changed over the course of a century.

Many of the early works featured in "Lure of the West" express a fascination with Native Americans and their customs. Eighteen works by George Catlin form the centerpiece of the exhibition, and feature portraits of Native Americans and scenes of Plains Indian life. (left: George Catlin, Black Rock, a Two Kettle (?) chief, 1832, Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Completed in the early 1830s when Catlin followed the path of explorers Lewis and Clark up the Missouri River and into the Dakota Territories, the eighteen paintings were originally part of Catlin's famous "Indian Gallery." This group of approximately 500 paintings was exhibited throughout the eastern United States and in the capitals of Europe, inspiring a wave of interest in the American frontier and Native American cultures.

John Mix Stanley was another artist who chronicled Native Americans and their customs, and "Lure of the West" features three of his paintings. Depicting an Apache warrior, a buffalo hunt and an Osage scalp dance, these three paintings are actually among the few Stanley paintings still in existence today. Back in 1851, Stanley placed 150 of his paintings--his life work--on deposit at the Smithsonian, hoping they would be purchased by the United States government. The paintings were stored in the Smithsonian Castle building, which went up in flames in 1865. The three paintings included in "Lure of the West" were not housed in that building, and to that they owe their existence. (left: John Mix Stanley, Osage Scalp Dance, 1845, Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Other early works featured in "Lure of the West" capture Native Americans at a time when they still hoped they could maintain their place in a growing America. Charles Bird King's portrait of five Pawnees, the exhibition's earliest work, was made in the artist's Washington, D.C. studio in 1821. The delegation of Pawnees had traveled east to negotiate territory rights on behalf of their tribe. King captured them in wampum ornaments, red face paint, and bead necklaces; a "peace medal" depicting President James Madison is proudly adorned on one. (left: Charles Bird King, Young Omahaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees, 1821, Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Such optimism is replaced by regret and nostalgia in many of the later works in "Lure of the West," which were created by artists who witnessed the defeat and confinement of Native Americans. A group of bronze-relief medallions by Olin Warner (1891) capture profile likenesses of tribal leaders who had fought bravely for their people. Three paintings by Joseph Henry Sharp show Native Americans reviving old ceremonies and maintaining craft traditions, which were soon to become a new "lure of the West" for a thriving tourist industry. Eanger Irving Couse's life-sized Elk-Foot of the Taos Tribe (1909) presents a wise leader seemingly resigned to his fate, and Walter Ufer's Callers (about 1926) imparts a domestic tranquility to Native American life.

In addition to its native peoples and cultures, the American West presented an abundance of other new subjects for artists in the 1800s and early 1900s. "Lure of the West" highlights many of them. For example, Charles Christian Nahl and Frederick August Wenderoth captured the ambitious enterprise that inspired so many to move west in Miners in the Sierra (1851-52), which depicts men at a placer mine recovering gold from a riverbed. Nahl and Wenderoth originally set out to be miners, following the rush to California when gold was discovered there in 1848. Unsuccessful at mining, they opted to instead record the lives of "Forty-niners" in paintings. Artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze chose to focus on the nation's determination to settle America from coast to coast in Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, an 1861 oil painting that shows a wagon train of settlers journeying to the Golden Gate near San Francisco.

For other artists it was the majestic and pristine landscapes of the West that became their inspiration. "Lure of the West" includes Albert Bierstadt's 10-foot-wide masterpiece, Among the Sierra Nevada, California (1868), as well as two of his smaller landscapes. The exhibition also features Thomas Moran's paintings of the Upper Colorado River in Wyoming Territory, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Kanab Canyon in Utah. (left: Thomas Moran, Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming Territory, 1882, Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

"Lure of the West" also includes the work of artists whose style was transformed when they journeyed across the country. Artists such as Joseph Henry Sharp, Eanger Irving Couse and William Victor Higgins became known as Taos School artists, and were famous for their boldly-colored depictions of the landscapes and native Hispanic cultures of the Southwest. Originally from the East, Taos School artists earned their name when they formed a thriving year-round artists' colony in Taos, New Mexico in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Taos School artists found the Southwest to be an antidote to urban industry and the sophistication of eastern cities. Victor Higgins, for example, spoke of New Mexico's "primitive appeal" and said that the very air of Taos country "drives caution from man's brain." Higgins' work includes Mountain Forms #2 (about 1925-27), which presents a religious procession moving through a monumental landscape that presses against a cosmic sky. (See information of Taos Society of Artists) (left: Victor Higgins, Mountain Forms #2, c.1925-27, Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

"Lure of the West" is one of eight exhibitions in Treasures to Go, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, touring the nation through 2002. The Principal Financial Group® is a proud partner in presenting these treasures to the American people.

The San Antonio venue is made possible by the generous support of Bank of America; Janey and Dolph Briscoe; Casey's Bar-B-Q and Smoked Meats; Nathalie and Gladys Dalkowitz Charitable Trust; Marie and Hugh Halff, Jr.; The Ewing Halsell Foundation; Mr. and Mrs. George C. Hixon; Marcia and Otto Koehler Foundation; McCombs Family Foundation; and V.H. McNutt Memorial Foundation, Trustees Jack Guenther, Valerie Guenther and Edward Muir.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the San Antonio Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/2/11

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